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Explainer: Should You See ‘Dune’ on IMAX or “Lie”MAX?

(Answer: Yes.)
October 28, 2021
Explainer: Should You See ‘Dune’ on IMAX or “Lie”MAX?
This image from 'Dune' is 1.5:1, so not quite as boxy as IMAX's boxiest format.

I’d like to say the following up front. You should see Dune. You should go to a theater to see Dune, more to experience Hans Zimmer’s soundscape than for the big picture. But you should go see Dune in an IMAX theater because that larger picture is indeed impressive.

Director Denis Villeneuve shot the film for IMAX and you can feel that difference in the theater. Some of the sequences are shot and projected in anamorphic widescreen, 2.39:1; these tend to be interior or quieter exterior moments. But some of the sequences—particularly the larger action-packed set pieces and the sweeping shots of Arrakis’s spice-scented desert landscapes—are shot in IMAX’s boxier, more-vertical aspect ratio.

Ah! But here’s the trick. There are multiple IMAX aspect ratios, and, as a friend notes on Twitter, the difference between the two is stark. Most multiplex-based IMAX systems at which Dune is playing use a 1.9:1 aspect ratio, but the IMAX of the sort you generally find at planetariums and museums and the like, can display at 1.43:1. Translating visuals to numbers is hard, so think of it this way: multiplex IMAX is more rectangular and museum IMAX is more square-like. You see more at the tops and the bottom in 1.43:1. Here’s a stark visual demonstration:

The effect, when used intentionally by an artist, can be pretty astonishing. A quick trip down memory lane: I saw First Man, Damien Chazelle’s film about Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his trip to the moon, at the Air and Space Museum’s IMAX on opening weekend. And most of the film’s 141 minutes were projected in standard anamorphic widescreen, 2.39:1. In other words: very rectangular on a very square screen. To the point that I was starting to get slightly annoyed, wondering why I’d bothered schlepping out to a special theater to see it if it were just going to projected as I might have seen it anyway at the local multiplex.

And then Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) open up the capsule after it has landed and the screen opens up with it. The image—which had been a bit grainy, owing to the fact that the material was being projected by IMAX but hadn’t been shot on IMAX—pops, breathtaking in its clarity and the depth of its colors. Between the expanded aspect ratio making us in the audience feel as if the very roof has been lifted off of our heads and that clarity of color, you got the sensation of having slipped the surly bonds of Earth. You could understand, in some infinitesimal sort of way, what it might have felt like to set foot on the moon and looked down on the Earth.

I empathize, though I disagree, with folks who took issue with First Man, criticizing its dour, internal nature. But I’ll never forget how it felt to see that shot for the first time.

The difference between these two ratios—the squarer 1.43:1 and the wider 1.9:1—is the heart of the argument between those folks who deride multiplex IMAX as “lie-MAX” and swear by museum-quality IMAX. (This decade-old story is a good primer on the debate over IMAX screen size.) And I get it! I’m kind of bummed that, living in Dallas, I’m not within easy driving distance of one of the only 12 theaters in the United States the boxier format is playing. I would love to see the full sweep of Arrakis, the grand vistas up and out. The effect is there at the multiplex, but it’s definitely muted.

Yet I don’t regret seeing it in the lesser form of IMAX, and that’s for a very simple reason: When I go see something in IMAX at the multiplex, I know it’s going to be shown properly. The damn thing will be in focus, for starters. The 3D lens that generally gets left on most digital projectors even when not showing 3D films, which has the effect of darkening the image, will be removed. The brightness will be turned up and the bulbs won’t be dim. The speakers won’t be blown out.

Yes, this means I’m basically paying a premium to ensure that I get a proper theatrical experience at the theaters, and yes, it’d be nice if AMC were less concerned with hiring Nicole Kidman to tell us about how great movie theaters are than with making sure the screen is properly masked. But this is the world we wish for and not the world we have. In the real world, we’re faced with a choice.

So when someone asks if you want to see Dune—or, really, anything else—in IMAX or “Lie”Max, your answer should be, simply, Yes. It’s the best way to watch just about anything. And the only way you’re more or less guaranteed to see it right.

Sonny Bunch

Sonny Bunch is the Culture Editor of The Bulwark. Before serving as editor-in-chief of the film site Rebeller, he was the executive editor of and film critic for The Washington Free Beacon. He is currently a contributor to The Washington Post and his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Commentary Magazine, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. He is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association